Teens Have a Hard Time Reading Each Other's Tones of Voice

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Young teens have a hard time understanding what their peers are feeling based on their tone of a voice, a new study has found.

The research, recently published research in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, shows that this is particularly challenging in mid-adolescence (between 13-15 years of age). While adults are able to accurately read a range of emotions in the voices of teens, and the opposite also holds true, teens are far less able to understand what is going on with their peers, particularly when it comes to tones of voice which express anger, meanness, disgust, or happiness.

Researchers played 140 voice recordings to a group of teens ages 13 to 15 as well as a group of adults. While the adults were generally able to distinguish the different emotions, the young teens had more difficulty. This can lead to misunderstandings and social conflict in middle school.

“Our results suggest that teenagers have not yet reached maturity in either their ability to identify vocal emotions, or to express them,” said Michele Morningstar, the first author on the paper, who conducted the research while completing her Ph.D. in Psychology at McGill University. “This means that teenagers face quite a challenge in their social spheres: they must interpret poorly expressed cues with immature recognition skills. Understanding how we learn emotional communication skills will be important to help teenagers who struggle socially.”

But parents shouldn't worry too much, said Morningstar. As a teen's brain continues to develop and mature, these miscues typically resolve.